Updated Mon, Oct 26, 2009 by Ethec
LEGOs produced more than 50 years ago are compatible with today's bricks, and almost three generations of kids have fueled their imaginations with the iconic interlocking plastic toys. But when LEGO Star Wars first appeared in 2005, it was an instant classic and marked perhaps the first time a toy IP found critical success (as opposed to just financial success) in the video game marketplace. The appeal of the Traveler's Tales games (LEGO Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman, and now RockBand) for adult gamers has always been a winning blend of nostalgia and simple amusement, combined with strikingly gameplay depth. Even for kids, the LEGO games are so rigorously polished that even the most playful moves are anticipated, lending the game a dynamic feel seldom found at a comparatively low price point that parents no doubt love.
All that paved the way for a comprehensive online treatment of the LEGO ideal, and we've been excited to see more of LEGO Universe ever since our friends at NetDevil revealed they were developing the family-friendly game in June 2007. Last week, Ten Ton Hammer was on-hand the first live in-game demo of LEGO Universe. LEGO’s Mark Hansen and NetDevil Creative Director Ryan Seabury head-manned the demo, which covered the opening tutorial and first two playable worlds: Avant Gardens and Gnarled Forest.
Character creation started out with a glowing “creative spark” which, as Ryan explained, is the immortal soul of the mini-fig and "can never be extinguished." Players can create a surprisingly unique minifig from the outfit options and facial features available, though all mini-figs are the same size. This one size fits all approach allows NetDevil animators to create an astonishing variety of poses, emotes, and animations, as I saw later. Character creation retained the playful approach of the login screen: players will scroll through racks of color-adjustable clothing and an astonishing, well-presented variety of facial features and hair pieces, rather than force players to wheedle through clumsy checkboxes and sliders. Ryan promised that what we saw was just the tip of the iceberg. “There’s so many items we can draw from the past, from the present, and we’ll even be introducing a few new things for LEGO Universe.”
Since a backstory cinematic that would greet new players upon their first login wasn’t quite ready yet, the curtain opened on an epicly damaged spaceship that will serve as the game’s tutorial area. Demoed on a 42 inch HDTV in full 1080p, I was immediately impressed with both how crisp, clean, and nearly tangible the minifigs and game environment looked and how hiccup-free the demo experience was. In other words, the game looks even better than the thumbnail screenshots in this article contend, though you’d be forgiven for thinking that even these images are concept art.
As for lore, Ryan explained: “There’s a huge epic story going on in the background, and it’s a struggle between creativity and chaos / destruction. Part of what you’re coming into LEGO Universe to do is to help save imagination. All you need to know today is: you’re coming in on a spaceship to enter LEGO Universe. En route to your destination, you pass by this black hole or this maelstrom out in space. It surges out and strikes your ship, which then tears the ship apart, and you’re now careening towards the center of the black hole. Your immediate goal is to get off the spaceship.” The spaceship is designed as a fairly linear teaching tool for the basic elements of the game, such as movement, NPC interaction, combat (i.e. smashing crates which provides you with loot, meaning the LEGO blocks and pieces needed to complete challenges both functional and aesthetic, but more on that later), and the platformer-style jump puzzles and obstacle courses which constitute a large part of LEGO U gameplay. Players are clued into basic actions primarily by large “thought bubbles” which clue you in on the correct key to hit to begin an action, but also occasionally by less-than-obtrusive popups.
Our first mission giver, “Bob”, activated our creative spark, which practically speaking allows players to store imagination. Think of imagination like mana - it allows you to do special abilities and build things. When Bob asked use to do a bit of platform jumping to fetch some creative orbs, our minifig fell to his death. In any case, you can lose a few coins and lose progress toward your goal by dying, but according to Ryan, the penalties won’t be harsh.
We satisified Bob’s mission requirements, did the turn in, and after a refreshing bit of electrocution (to activate the creative spark, not necessarily for psychotherapy), our minifig was full of imagination. Sky Lane, our next mission giver, frantically gestured for us to get off the ship, but to do that, we’ll need a “Thinking Hat” to create a one-minifig rocketship constructed according to a transparent 3D blueprint overlay hovering nearby. Ryan explained that this is only a rough guideline, a number of different style sets and slight variations could construct perfectly satisfactory rocketships.
Ryan showed us his minifig’s “passport”, where all of his character’s “hundreds and hundreds” of achievements and missions are tracked. All of the achievements give you specific rewards and LEGO points, which is an overall score denoting how much progress you’ve made in the game. The NetDevil crew began to search for all the various components of the rocket ship. The nosecone required a bit of jumping, and here we found a fun carryover from the Star Wars LEGO games. The Jedi-inspired double jump, Ryan explained, was “such a fun feature that we had to have it.”
The Spaceship tutorial area.
One very novel feature of Sky Lane’s quest was that when we couldn’t find the engine parts, the NPC clued us in on their general location high above. It’s a quick shot of help that we saw throughout the demo, but it’s especially nice that the game gives new players a hand without excessive hand-holding via marks on the minimap and/or big green arrows. You get a clue as needed, but the help the game offers is far from smothering.
Since jumping wasn’t going to cover the distance, we came across our first “quickbuild” - a carryover from the franchise games that is essentially a pile of blocks that can be quickly constructed into something useful. The bouncing platform we constructed could be used by all the folks in the group, and grabbing the last of the “steampunk style” rocketship parts resulted in an achievement and a “spot reward” of a t-shirt we could immediately equip. The ship has plenty of nooks and crannies and possibly other sets and achievements to be won, but now that we had all the rocket parts we followed Sky Lane’s advice and prepared to get off the ship. With the Thinking Hat in our backpack, we returned to the 3D blueprint which we accessed to enter a “build area.”
In a build area, the minifig isn’t concerned with everything going on in the area, but is taken to a sort of creative Zen LEGO state where the player can entirely focus on building. The character still appears and is animated in the persistent world and can chat with other players, but doesn’t have to be concerned with hazards or attackers. Blocks can be taken out, put on the floor, assembled, rotated, colorized, and just played with, but once the build is finished, the pieces used are removed from inventory, the completed rocketship is optimized for performance, and the whole thing goes in our backpack. Ryan noted that all the aspects that you can never see on the complete build aren’t rendered to save graphical memory, but special “backend voodoo” like ambient occlusion is added to give the blocks a very lifelike took, We brought the ship to an escape hatch and took off for the closest world.